Whenever body image is discussed, terms like body positivity and neutrality are banded around. However, the progressivism of the movement often leaves out men. While women are the ones predominantly attacked for their body image, men are increasingly becoming subjected to unrealistic body standards. This comes from social media fitness influencers, pop culture, and the rise of the superhero or action star.
Many brands that previously upheld unrealistic standards have started taking on more diverse bodies, but this rarely reflects towards men. It’s almost as if men’s bodies only exist in a binary fit or unfit. There is no room for a spectrum for men with disabilities or those who are fat. The dad bod trend does exist, but it’s also limited to a small doughy gut pouch but muscular arms and legs. This undue pressure affects men and makes them resort to unhealthy practices to maintain a figure fit for Instagram.
Why are men facing pressure?
Celebrities like Sam Smith have shared their journey with body image and the struggles it causes. The Eternals star, Kumail Nanjani, shared that he experienced body dysmorphia when he bulked up for his role in the Marvel Cinematic Universe film. With how ubiquitously the 6-pack abs and bodybuilder arms are praised, stars can feel pressure to remain in that shape even if they don’t need it for a role.
Young men who live ordinary lives see the response to muscular bodies and gravitate towards maintaining that figure. Research shows that men are less happy about their appearance than 50 years ago. Celebrity trainers and their adjacent peers share the regimens of these stars. The fitness industry starts designing products and routines to sell to the everyman. Trickling down celebrity fads isn’t new, but the aggressive targeted marketing towards young men is growing.
The highest-grossing films show big, bulky men. The same isn’t as overt in TV and more dramatic cinema, but even in traditional rom-com that would ordinarily have a regular-looking man playing the male lead, it’s always the 6-pack actor that wins the girl.
Social media is also contributing to this pressure. At least 43% of users share footage of themselves at the gym. The algorithms push such content because it has a high engagement rate. With young men constantly bombarded with exercising videos, tips, thirst traps, or advice, they’ll inevitably gain a complex about their appearance.
It’s more than just the body
For men, it’s not just about their physique. There is also undue pressure on their hair, skin, and height. There is a significant stigma among men with thinning or bald hair. Studies show that male pattern baldness leads to psychological distress, reduced self-confidence, and inferiority. Baldness is also linked to growing older or low testosterone.
The hair loss industry is worth a lot of money. There are multiple hair loss treatments, such as hair transplants, products to trigger hair growth, and fake beards and wigs for men. There is also an increase in cosmetic procedures for men, such as face lifts, male breast reduction, and eyelid surgery.
Looking a specific way shows that you will perform a certain way in bed. There’s a belief that taller men have bigger penises than shorter men. This isn’t what determines penis size, but the stereotype still exists.
Body image is difficult to address because it’s often wrongfully linked to health. Men think taking unnecessary protein shakes and workout powders is healthy because it leads to muscle gain, which should be the aim of a healthy lifestyle.
Body neutrality can go a long way in eliminating negative self-perception. The body just is. It’s a vessel that you need to treat a specific way for it to perform its functions. Accepting that image doesn’t determine personality can help some men understand how they look and even accept their “imperfections.” Body positivity can also help men increase self-confidence. This protects them from succumbing to negative self-image marketing and pop culture trends.
The body isn’t something to be fixed. If your habits are unhealthy, you have to change your lifestyle, not your body. The image is merely a side effect of your habits.
Simple steps that men can follow also include:
Taking social media breaks. Many images online are curated to look a specific way. In the real world, people don’t look fit to be Wolverine from a few weekly sessions at the gym.
Get support from other male friends. Men’s friendships with each other can help them navigate the pressure.
Embracing body image vulnerability helps men learn that image doesn’t equate to masculinity. Positive masculinity allows men to navigate these emotions. Sharing these thoughts is what leads to healing.
Spreading awareness will help demystify men’s concerns with their appearance and make giving and receiving help easier.
Many men experience mental health problems from body image issues. Some have even resorted to self-harm. It can also lead to disordered eating, exercise addiction, addiction to steroids, and injury from over-exercising. There are limited resources when providing counselling to men with these issues. However, it’s only when the first steps are taken that progress can fully be achieved.
Gloria Mari is a culture writer based in Nairobi, Kenya. She writes on art, film, literature, health, and the environment. She has previously written for Kenya Buzz, People Daily, The Elephant, and Kalahari Review.